A more bike-friendly Duluth could be on the horizon

By Becky Edwards

The rain hammers down on the roof that offers occasional glimpses of the grey, cloudy Duluth night. Despite the weather, people sporting bike helmets and backpacks are piling into the room, some look happy, some look perturbed, but all look like they have something to say.

Tonight, the Garden Room at the University of Minnesota Duluth is reserved for a meeting set up by Fit City Duluth, organization that devotes itself to making Duluth a healthy and active community. The group is working in conjunction with the Metropolitan Interstate Council (MIC).

In recent months, this organization has taken on a somewhat daunting task: make Duluth a bike-friendly city.

At this meeting on a rainy Thursday night on April 29, bikers and community members concerned about cyclists gather around tables to eat pizza and share their ideas for making biking in Duluth easier and  above all - safer.

Codie Leseman, acting living coordinator of Fit City, stands in front of the group with a smile on his face. Tonight’s turnout is the best he’s seen so far.

Leseman begins his presentation by talking about what must be done to the streets to make them more useable for bikers.

“It might be as simple as adding shoulders or it might be something like redesigning the whole street,” Leseman says.

Tim Hohn, an intern for MIC, says that the wide roads in Duluth could be easily fixed to accommodate bikers.  These changes might even make streets a little safer for everyone else - not just bikers.

“People tend to associate wide roads with driving faster so if we narrow it down it slows down the natural flow of traffic,” Hohn says.

The goal of both these organizations is to provide bikers with an opportunity to feel safe while they are biking in the city. They are hoping this can be accomplished without major construction.

In an unanimous vote, the Duluth City Council recently passed the Complete Streets policy. This policy, according to the Complete Streets website, will make sure that “our streets are planned to be safe and accessible for pedestrians, transit riders, bicyclists, and drivers—all users, regardless of age or abilit­y.”

This means that engineers will now be trained to design streets to be safely accessed by everyone. Leseman says that city streets should be able to apply the “8-80 rule” - meaning that a street should be safe for both an eight year old and an 80 year old.

According to the National Complete Streets Coalition, the "8-80 rules is as follows: 1. Imagine someone that is eight years old. 2. Imagine someone that is 80 years old. 3. Then think about this - are you comfortable having either one of these people walk or bike in that area?

Now that the Complete Streets policy is enacted, the next step is deciding which streets need the most work or would be the most beneficial, according to Leseman.

That’s where the meetings come in.

“We want to get public involvement here,” Hohn says, gesturing at the crowd gathered around the room.  “These are the people that use the roads. It’s good to get their voice.”


By Minnesota law, bikes are defined as vehicles, so bikers must follow the same laws motorists do- which means sharing the road. However, many roads in Duluth don’t have wide enough shoulders – or in some cases no shoulders at all – making it dangerous for bikers to make their commute. (Audio and photos by Fatima Jawaid)


It’s clear that the city of Duluth is keeping with its outdoorsy tradition. The many bike racks and designated recreational biking paths around the city are helpful in encouraging people to put away the driving gloves and take out the helmets. However, one problem that Fit City Duluth found with most bike paths is that they are designed mostly for recreational biking. Leseman says, transportation biking is defined as “biking to get to a specific destination like work, school, house, babysitter and so on.”

“With recreational biking there is no specific destination; it’s biking to enjoy biking.” he says.

Simply put, biking for transportation needs to be safer and easier, according to Leseman.  Many of the streets are either in horrible condition or full of speeding traffic.  This can make bicycle commuting a dangerous hobby.

Mark Lavalier, a firefighter and avid biker, has responded to several accidents that have resulted from cars hitting bicyclists. He says it happens too often.  For Lavalier, he says the attitude of the drivers is one of the biggest concerns.

“Bicyclists aren’t the bad guys,” says Lavalier. “that’s a bad mentality.”

Many drivers are ignorant of the laws pertaining to bicycles. Bikers have all the rights that a driver does and are not exempt from traffic laws, according to the Share the Road organization of Minnesota website.

"I'm hopeful something useful will come from these meetings."

According to Hohn, drivers and bicyclists just need to be aware of each other.

“It’s a problem of cars not seeing bikes and bikes not seeing cars,” Hohn says.

Duluth citizens in favor of the changing landscape of transportation biking said they feel that bikers and non-bikers alike need to be aware of the laws and rules that should be followed on the roads - especially if the street conditions are poor.

Lavalier believes that once people are educated about the rules, biking will be accepted as a norm.  He thinks the best way to raise awareness is by public service announcements or even billboards around town.

He also said he hopes that by seeing more bikers comfortable on the roads, others will be encouraged to bike.

“If you see one biker a driver might see it as an obstruction but if you see a hundred bikers, you’ll see it as positive,” Lavalier says, “I could see this city as a very green, eco-friendly city.  I think Duluth has the potential to be a bike-friendly place.”

Today, the Garden Room is full of large maps of Duluth, sectioned off into three different areas.  The participants in the meeting are told to map out the routes they have the most issues with and also point out which streets where they would like to have bike paths.

While discussion flitters away from biking once in a while, it soon became quiet as the black-and-white maps slowly start to fill with the florescent colors as everyone plots out their would-be perfect bike friendly Duluth.

With all this hard work, it’s somewhat disheartening  for of Duluthians to realize that these kinds of changes can’t happen overnight.

The idea, as of now, is to make long-range plans.  The MIC and Fit City Duluth will look at roads that are scheduled to be worked on in the next few years and work from there.  That way when the roads are being worked on engineers and will have the knowledge to be able to efficiently plan and redesign the streets in order to make Duluth a more bike and pedestrian friendly place.

Hohn knows that many people would like the changes to take place quickly, but he also knows they have to be realistic about their goals.

“I hope it will be effective 10 to 20 years down the road. It’s a long process. Anything takes a long time but it’s good,” Hohn says, as he packs up the newly colored maps.

As the meeting draws to a close, many thank Leseman and the rest of the group, hoping that what they are proposing tonight will eventually be accomplished.

Many of these bikers are adamant and passionate about Duluth’s potential to be a biking city, much like Minneapolis.  One man still talks to Leseman about his hopes for Duluth, his arms flying in the air as he voices his frustrations with some of the drivers’ careless attitude towards bikers.

Lavalier, one of the last people to leave, has seen previous attempts to make these kinds of sweeping changes in the city and hopes that Fit City Duluth and MIC can eventually make the changes bikers would like to see.

“I’d like to see everybody’s efforts come together as one force,” Lavalier says, holding his bike helmet, catching a quick glimpse at the window. “That way we can all accomplish something,”

The rain has stopped and he is grateful -  as either way he would be biking home.

“I bike everywhere if I can." Lavalier says. "I’m hopeful something will come from these meetings.”

Duluth taxidermist is a master of his craft

True Life: "I'm on Family Vaca"